Patricia McCormick's first novel, Cut (Front Street, Oct.), about adolescent girls in a psychiatric hospital, is so convincing and so compassionate that many readers will assume that McCormick is either a therapist or was, like her protagonist, a self-mutilator. In fact, McCormick-who has been a crime reporter for the New Brunswick (N.J.) Home News, a children's movie reviewer for the New York Times and the children's book reviewer for Parents magazine-got her inspiration from a 1997 article in the New York Times Magazine. The piece, by Jennifer Egan, described the growing phenomenon of teen girls who cut themselves, presenting the problem not just as a pathology but also as the girls'desperate attempts to cope with undue stress.
"I was horrified, and I was also fascinated," says McCormick. "I kept the article for months, then I finally threw it away. I didn't know why I was saving it."
Later that year, enrolled in an MFA program at the New School (located not far from McCormick's home in New York City), she had an exercise due for a writing workshop. "I found myself writing in the voice of a girl, addressing her shrink in a loony bin. I thought, Where does this come from? I finally traced it back. So I closed up my computer and got hold of that article again. And from there I could not stop writing the book."
McCormick's comments could give a listener the impression that she was able to devote herself exclusively to her novel. But McCormick is also married and the mother of two children-17-year-old Meaghan, who critiqued Cut at each stage, and 11-year-old Matt, who read the finished book in a single sitting. She has had multiple freelance gigs, having left a full-time position at Parents eight years ago in order to develop herself as a novelist.
Before entering the New School, McCormick had finished a historical novel, also for young readers, about the Underground Railroad. It had elicited such a harsh rejection from the one editor to whom she'd submitted it (he called the story hackneyed and the topic overdone) that she stopped in her tracks. The letter had stung, but, she adds, "I also knew in my heart that it wasn't a great book. With a kinder letter, I might have revised it and kept at it, but it was not as original nor as heartfelt as the book I ended up writing."
Preparing to write Cut, McCormick read several books for background but stopped herself from undertaking full-scale research, at the recommendation of Deborah Brodie, executive editor at Viking Children's Books, who was giving her a tutorial (at the time, Brodie taught in the New School's continuing education division; currently, Brodie is the faculty coordinator for the MFA's Writing for Children program). Given McCormick's professional background, Brodie thought she ran the risk of turning her story into "a giant piece of journalism," McCormick recalls. "Because I respected Deborah so much, I took that advice, even though it went against every grain. She was right-the challenge was to let it come from my imagination." Afraid to draw too heavily from outside sources, she put her books away in a suitcase. When her own work had reached galley form, McCormick did go visit a clinic for self-injurers. "It was sort of terrifying-what if I'd gotten it wrong? But I met a dozen girls who were startlingly like the girls in Cut. And the place was uncannily like the place in Cut."
Between her third and fourth semesters at the New School, when she was about two-thirds of the way through her first draft of the novel, McCormick enrolled also in Vermont College's MFA program in Writing for Children. The faculty included novelist Carolyn Coman, who became her formal mentor. "Working with Carolyn was amazing. The whole Vermont experience was deeply important to me," says McCormick. "I finally found a home as a writer."
She also found a home in a more concrete sense. Coman passed the manuscript of Cut to her own publisher, Stephen Roxburgh of Front Street Books-McCormick never even had to write a cover letter. Roxburgh, too, helped her shape her book.His revisions letter led her to spend two full months writing in a notebook, just processing the questions he'd posed.McCormick has the highest praise for Roxburgh and Front Street, and expects to work with them on her next book, about a 15-year-old boy's relationship with his troubled older brother. "Stephen says he publishes authors, not books. The understanding is that we'll have a long, happy publishing relationship. Do I have a contract with him? No. But I don't need one. And it was such an incredibly positive experience that there's no reason in the world I'd go anywhere else."